The Coming Economy

It's becoming increasingly clear that significant changes are on the horizon for our economy. This isn't just a case of shifting the source of manufacturing, or of migrating from a primarily manufacturing based to a service and trade based economy. Instead, the world is likely to see a significant shift in the way that manufacturing and trade interact, a change as significant as the similar shift from an economy based on craft production to one based on mass production. I forsee a future which is based on what I refer to as a mass craft production system.

A Brief History of Manufacturing

Craft Production

All manufacturing started as a craft industry. By craft manufacturing, I mean that products were produced one at a time and were generally unique. No two items were exactly identical, and in many cases each item was intentionally made different from others. Given the nature of early manufacturing, this is no surprise. Early craftsmen worked without the benefit of substantial mechanization, without which making identical, or nearly identical, items is actually more difficult than making each one different. Furthermore, some products actually benefit from uniqueness. Craft made clothing, for instance, can be made to fit the distinctive characteristics of its intended wearer rather than simply being made to fit his general type. Many of the tools used in early societies also benefited from being custom made for their individual owners.

Craft production, however, has severe drawbacks. Some items do benefit from being made to a standardized pattern. Wagons, for instance, benefit from using a standard track width so that they can all fit into the same set of ruts, and all of the arrows used with a particular bow must be as identical as possible in order to ensure maximum accuracy. Furthermore, craft made items are more difficult to fix than standardized ones. If part of a craft made item breaks, a new one must be fabricated to the same tolerances as the old part, while standardized parts are interchangeable by design.

Standardized production started much earlier than many people realize. There is some evidence that stone age men mass produced tools such as arrow heads to reasonably standard patterns. By Roman times it was commonplace for inexpensive stone- and glassware to be made in standardized molds. There was also some standarization of miltary equipment in Classical times: triremes were sometimes built and fitted out on primitive assembly lines to a standardized plan, and the Roman state armories mass produced arms and armor to a standard pattern. The military remained the most common user of standardized equipment right up until the industrial revolution. None the less, most of these military uses were standardized primarily for interchangeable usability, such as making standard arrows for greater accuracy, rather than for ease of manufacturing. A striking example of this is that the first standardized, mass produced rifles (made by Eli Whitney for the U.S. Army) were actually more expensive than craft made, one off rifles would have been.

The Coming of Mass Production

Mass produced housewares, however, meet the criterion of being made that way for ease of production, and hence may be considered the first examples of mass manufacturing. While there were occasional examples of this type of manufacturing through Classical, Medieval, and Renaisance times, craft work remained the standard means of manufacture. That began to change in the eighteenth century, however. The development of a series of improved machines for spinning yarn and weaving it into cloth drastically increased the productivity of textile workers. At the same time, increased mechanization both allowed and demanded increased standarization. On the one hand, machines inherently produced a more consistent product, as their mechanical parts performed the exact same production steps the exact same way each time. On the other hand, machines were less adaptable than humans and so required a more standardized grade of starting materials in order to work properly.

The spectacular success of mechanization in the textile industry encouraged other industries to follow suit, and it also provided a skilled group of engineers who proved very capable of translating their knowledge into other industries. Various types of precision machines quickly adopted mechanization. Despite Whitney's early failure, the arms industry was soon able to mass produce guns for cheaper than craft production, and precision manufacturing made new types of guns, such as the revolver, practical. Watch and clock making was also revolutionized, as punched brass gears proved more accurate and cheaper than hand cut ones. By the early twentieth century, nearly every industry had followed in textile's footsteps and adopted mass production.

Mass production has many obvious advantages. When fully developed, it is much cheaper than craft production. Machines don't tire or get bored as human workers do, and in many cases they can perform their functions hundreds or thousands of times faster than any human laborer. They churn out identical parts and products, so that repairs can often be as simple as taking out a worn or broken part and putting in a new one- much cheaper than having to make the new part from scratch. Their products are also of much more uniform quality, so that buyers can have much greater confidence that their purchase will perform as expected. Another, often underappreciated feature of mass production is that it allows more thorough engineering. When each product is made one off, it doesn't make much sense to pour huge amounts of effort into designing it to be perfect. With mass production, though, engineering costs can be spread over thousands or millions of units, which means that it can be cost effective to incorporate some very sophisticated engineering design.

At the same time, however, mass production has drawbacks. While the products that mass production makes are identical, people aren't. To account for the variety of human shapes, tastes, etc., manufacturers must make a variety of different models or sizes of goods to meet at least some of the spectrum of demands. Still, many people wind up feeling like Goldilocks: there are many products which are too big or too small, too bland or too wild, or too square or too round, but none that are just right. It may not be economical to produce for people with extreme tastes or demands, so those people have to rely on the remaining craft economy to meet their needs and desires. Ultimately, mass production is limited by the fact that machines are inherently less flexible than humans are, so their products must remain essentially identical.

In practical terms, not all industries can be neatly described as purely mass or purely craft production. Clothing, for instance is produced by a mixture of the two methods. Patterns are cut out in bulk to produce large numbers of essentially identical pieces of fabric, and in this way the industry uses mass production techniques. At the same time, no machine has yet been designed to assemble the clothes out of fabric pieces, so the industry relies on individual workers sewing clothes together on sewing machines, essentially a craft production technique. Other industries which produce a strictly limited number of products, like the space industry, rely in equal parts on mass production for some parts and hand craft for others. Others, like aftermarket car work, start with a mass produced product and then hand modify it into a customized final result.

The Coming Change: Mass Craft

Improving technology has the potential to resolve many of the inherent drawbacks of each method of production. The key will be the use of computers, multi-function robots, and similar machines to span the gap between flexible but labor intensive craft production and cheap but inflexible mass production. This mixture of mass production technique with multifunction automation to produce customized products from an assembly line like factory is what I refer to as mass-craft production.

Current Trends in Manufacturing

There is already some indication that mass craft production, at least in some primitive form, is starting to take hold. There are examples of various mixed production methods from two very dissimilar industries, the automotive and clothing industries.

Use of mass craft production in the clothing industry is inherently limited because of the residual craft element already present there. Automated assembly of clothes from pieces of fabric remains a dream. The production of individualized patterns, however, has already been introduced to a limited extent. Probably the best example is a new technique being pioneered by Levi Strauss. Women, who have been particularly ill served by the limited number of patterns available due to mass production techniques, can now have their individual measurments taken when they go to buy new jeans. The measurements are transmitted back to Levi Strauss, where they are used to select or design an individual pattern on a computer. A computer controlled fabric cutter then cuts fabric to the individual woman's pattern, has it sewn together in traditional fashion, and sent to the store from which it was ordered. The process is much more time consuming than buying an off-the-rack style, but it allows women to purchase clothes that exactly fit their needs.

A more limited form of mass-craft production is used in the automotive industry. Automotive manufacturing has been undergoing a gradual transformation since the thirties. When Henry Ford first introduced mass production techniques to building cars, he followed the simplest possible method by making all of his cars identical right down to the color of paint. While this was very economical, it limited their marketing appeal. As long as Ford was the only mass producer of cars around, that wasn't such a big problem, but General Motors quickly moved in with a variety of models and colors and outcompeted Ford rather quickly. Still, though, even into the sixties each make of cars had only a handfull of models and the available options remained limited. Many desirable features had to be added by hand at the dealership. Since then, there has been a gradual increase in the number of models offered, and the number of available features has increased greatly. Typical 60's models sold hundreds of thousands of copies each year, and there were a limited number of body variations. Today manufacturers try to sell niche models which have anual production runs of only tens of thousands, often with greater variations in body style and avaiable features.

The key to this increased market segmentation has been more flexible assembly lines. Lines in the 60's were really only capable of turning out a single design with a few variations of, for instance, engine types. Even this showed limited flexibility, as the engines were produced on a separate line and fitted into the car fully finished. Modern assembly lines, in contrast, use a mixture of multi-program robots and human workers to achieve tremendously greater variation. A single line can turn out both left and right hand drive cars, models with any of a much wider selection of available features, and even several different models based around a common platform. A company like Saturn can take a customer's order for a car, including body type, features, and color, and program that data into a radio transponder which is placed on the chasis at the beginning of production. As the car reaches each stage in the assembly process, the automated equipment receives information from the transponder and decides what steps are necessary without further outside assistance. That type of flexibility promises only to increase in the future.

Past Developments, Present Trends, and Future Outlook

It seems clear that this type of mixed production is the wave of the future. It's true that not every industry needs any amount of customization; goods which aren't made for personal use or consumption, like highway signs, actually benefit from following a standardized plan. For the large part, however, increased craft-like specialization promises to be of great physical and psychological benefit.

One of the least appreciated aspects of mass production is it's broader effect on society. Craft workers tended to be loners and generalists. Farmers and artisans were essentially self employed and were thus allowed to set their own working hours and conditions. Factory work, with its need for standardized working hours and cooperation among workers ended that. As people switched to standardized jobs and purchased an increasing number of standardized goods, society became much more conformist and regimented.

Probably the peak of the conformist movement was the late fifties and early sixties. Mass production reached its peak as industries, such as brewing, which had remained regionally based were driven out of business by national brands. The GI generation, which had experienced deprivation during the Great Depression and been quite literally regimented en masse during the Second World War, accepted this conformity and the material plenty which the efficiency of mass production brought. The hippie movement of the late 1960's and today's tatooing and body piercing represent rejection of 50's conformity.

The anti-materialist aspects of the hippie movement, for instance, can perhaps be better seen as a rejection of the inherent conformity of the 50's materialist lifestyle. Certainly the ex-hippie yuppies of the 1980's were perfectly happy to indulge in materialist excess wholy at odds with their earlier behavior. The direction of their materialism in its never ending search for new and different products is ceratinly a clue that conformity was the true object of their distrust. Similarly, tatooing and body piercing, the popular statement of Generation X, are deeply and fundamentally personal and individual in nature.

The development of mass craft production needs to be seen in light of these social trends. The desire to be seen as an individual seems to be as important a factor as a true need for individualized products as a driving force for changes in production. An important indicator of this is that true craft production has seen a revival in recent years. Custom made leather jackets and boots, exotic streed rods, and hand forged decorative iron work are only a few of the many craft made items which are increasing in popularity. That people seem to be willing to pay a substantial premium for these goods bodes well for increased application of mass craft principles, as mass craft production does cost more than simple mass manufacturing.

A number of factors can be expected to drive that cost premium down, though. Computers are becoming ever cheaper, which will lead to cost savings for computer driven machinery. Increased demand for the type of flexible manufacturing equipment needed for mass craft production should lead to the same sort of mass production cost savings which drove the original mass production revolution. Probably the most important factor, though, is that the increased flexibility has real value which may make up for the increased cost.

Traditionally, manufacturers have been faced with a tough decision when deciding whether to adopt improved production techniques or change product lines. Changing ones production often involves retooling the production line, and retooling can have a substantial capital cost. If the increased income or decreased cost from improving ones production techniqe or switching to new produciton is less than the capital cost of new tooling than it isn't cost effective. More flexible macinery, however, promises to make this retooling less expensive, perhaps radically so, and hence to allow companies to adopt new production techniques or product lines much more frequently than is currently the case. While science fiction auto-factories which can turn out any imaginable good on demand seem unlikely, flexible machinery will probably allow future companies to adapt much faster to market demands.

Summary

The application of computerization to mass production promises to unleash a new revolution comprable only to the industrial revolution. Mass production will be substantially replaced by niche, and even personalized production. This new mass craft production will combine the mechanization and efficiency of mass production with the indiviualized products characteristic of hand crafting. This trend in production is in its infancy today, but it has nothing but a bright future.




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Mass Craft / Roger Moore / raj@alumnae.caltech.edu / June 1997